A Brief History of Christmas Cards

A Brief History of Christmas Cards

Elsewhere we’ve talked about recycling Christmas cards, making them by hand, adaptively reusing them – everything about Christmas cards but why we have them, and what their future might be.

In the early part of the 19th century people who felt they needed to reconnect with friends and loved ones during the Christmas season did so by writing notes or letters to them (this was way before those some-call-them-tedious Christmas letters of today). By 1822, according to some accounts, the Postmaster of Washington D.C. (the city’s Postmaster, not the Postmaster General) set a limit of how many notes or letters could be sent and had to temporarily hire additional letter carriers because of the volume.

It wasn’t, however, until the early 1840s that an Englishman (who happened to have promoted the idea of the universal "penny post" which provided for uniform delivery of mail – and required an actual postage stamp – across the United Kingdom) commissioned formally designed Christmas cards. Slightly more than 2,000 were sold but the idea caught on. The Brits then, understandably, tended to feature scenes of happy indoor home life and not so much on snow and fog and other sorts of gloomy weather.

The idea of Christmas cards made its way across the pond and we Americans soon began to develop "list anxiety" about to whom we would send cards, from whom we had received cards, who got better cards and who got the ones out of the box.

It turns out that more than half of us want the greeting inside to be "Merry Christmas" or a small variant thereof. Many of us are bothered by "Season’s Greetings" and other less religious phrases.

Sales of Christmas cards have declined along with the economy and prospects for the future are unclear. With postage reaching an all-time high, the population aging, and younger greeters increasingly turning to electronic delivery, it is difficult to see tomorrow’s Postmasters needing to set limits on the number of cards that can be mailed.

Written by Dianne Weller

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